Friday, September 7, 2018
On educating for action
I write this as someone who has considered himself as an activist since I was 16 – just over 50 years ago. I could list all of the “actions” that I’ve been part of as my bona fides, but that seems tiresome to do. You’ll have to accept my statement at face value – as a statement that at least I see as a fact that informs what I write here.
I like to see the young folks from around the country engaged in active response to the problems of gun violence. They are passionate, focused, and gaining skills in how to make their message have impact. At the moment, they are getting lots of attention, so their voices are being heard in places and by people who have ignored the problems generated by gun violence. Good for them!
But I see all the markings of the end of this movement before the movement even gets underway. Energy, passion, and current focus just aren’t enough to maintain the momentum that will lead to intended changes. Activists need to develop the “legs” they need to carry their ideas on the long march to change. What do I mean by “legs”? Legs are the coalitions that bring together multiple constituencies for sustained action around a multi-pronged plan that includes legislative, social, and economic changes. Legs are what it takes to merge ideas into a coherent statement of purpose. Legs means that there are activists who will make this work their life’s mission and commit multiple years to creating change. Legs mean that a movement has to work toward goals while effectively dealing with the inevitable and fatiguing infighting and divergence of opinion that mark the leaders of any action group. If you look at any social movement that has long-term impact, it takes all of that.
These barriers to success aren’t an outcome of right- or left-leaning politics. Look at the alt-right movement that seemed to coalesce under the banner of the president in the last election. It’s falling apart at every level because of these issues as national figures like Steve Bannon start jockeying for power. Or smaller figures get wrapped up in the nexus of internecine wars and the demands of their personal lives. It’s no different on the left of the political spectrum. You don’t have to look too far back in the left’s history to recall the “Occupy” movement that was going to change the way that the nation looked at its economic structure. After months of huddling in tents of the cold streets of New York and elsewhere, that effort seems to have dissolved into factions and slogans that can still be heard at rallies.
What will keep this current youth movement from gaining legs? First, and most importantly, we can’t expect that high school students will give up their futures and fight for this cause for the time it will take to address all of the federal and state laws required to make changes. The NRA and the legislators the NRA has bought know this. These young people will graduate from high school and they will go out and get jobs, or enter training programs or attend college. That’s what they should do. They can be advocates in those roles, but being leaders in a movement that generates national change isn’t a part-time job. They are fighting against one of the best financed machines in the history of the nation.
And as much as I’d like to share the David-and-Goliath idealism that beliefs can conquer all, that’s just not how things work. We got to this point in our history because gun manufacturers in the past 30 years have used the NRA as a tool to generate public opinion and policies that run contrary to what had been opinion and policy for almost 200 years prior. The gun lobby/NRA’s machine has the legs that millions of dollars have bought so that it can create public campaigns and legislation, and shape public perception. Beating that machine will take more time and energy than enthusiastic young people can provide in the short time they have to keep the nation’s attention.
I keep seeing these new activists being compared to the movements in the 1960s that brought about such change in that decade and the decades following. The myth is that era’s change was brought about by youth marching in the streets and organizing for change. Yes, that was at times the visible component. But behind the peace movement was decades of organizing history and knowledge that groups like the American Friends Service Committee and the support of religious leaders like the Berigan brothers; and behind the civil rights marches were the Black churches and organizing structures like that of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. These groups began well before the 1960s, and they had the staying power to hold the fight after marchers’ initial enthusiasms waned and during the moments when no spotlight was being held on their issues. Today’s activists would do well to learn from those experiences instead of hearing the misguided mythology that they’ll be adequate in and of themselves. For their efforts to impact their cause of gun violence, it seems they would benefit from connecting to the groups and organizations that are already engaged in the work.
I’m actually heartened by seeing these young folks doing this work. Good for them for caring about their world enough to demand that it change. As they move on with their lives, my experiences tell me that their current activism will shape how they interact with the world, and that’s a good thing. We need more actively engaged citizens who demand that our government and our society offer safety, justice, and opportunity to all. So I believe that this movement will have lots of impact in the long term as we encourage more young people to be engaged in the society.
But for now, let’s find ways to leverage their work into the efforts that have longstanding viability. Let’s help them to see their work as part of a continuum of other work that precedes them and will last beyond them. Let’s help them to see the ways in which they can channel their passion to work with other people and organizations that can help them learn and can help their work persist.